Benefits of living with pets for patients with advanced cancer


Living with cancer is stressful enough that patients do not have to consider the possibility of abandoning their beloved pets. Even people who aren’t sick will say that their pet gives them a reason to get up in the morning, go for a walk, cook at mealtimes, or just enjoy their company. These benefits can be even more important considerations in the life of someone struggling with cancer or other illnesses. Researchers in the UK recently conducted an analysis of the role of companion animals in the lives of patients with advanced cancer.1

The researchers defined pet like any animal kept in a community for companionship, pleasure, work or psychological support.1 They estimate that 45% of families in the UK own a pet; they are mostly dogs or cats. In the United States, the statistic for pet-owning households is 70%; 69 million people share their home with a dog and 45.3 million households have a cat.2

Many studies demonstrate the benefits of living with a pet. These researchers indicate that living with a companion animal reduces psychological distress, isolation and loneliness while increasing social supports and communication. Pets have been shown to be beneficial for people with chronic or long-term illnesses. However, their influence may change when the patient has advanced cancer or another fatal disease.1

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For their study, the UK group recruited participants who were involved with a charity in Northern Ireland that helps patients with advanced illness manage their pets. Participants were also recruited through social media advertisements. After evaluating the candidates, 3 women and 3 men were enrolled in the study; all had advanced cancer and reported having a deep and meaningful relationship with their pet.1 While this illustrates the human-animal bond, the researchers were surprised to find that in the cases they studied, it grew into a more prominent human-like attachment. They described this link as a protective relationship, a relationship that includes 3 subordinate themes: unconditional positive attachments, post-traumatic growth and expression of the emotional consequences of illness.1

Unconditional positive attachments ensuring that patients with advanced cancer feel an increased sense of security in their relationships with their pets at a time when worsening cancer makes them increasingly vulnerable and alone.

Post-traumatic growth is the positive psychological change that can take place within a negative event. Participants found that their pet helped them stay positive during extremely unpleasant and difficult times. They would be encouraged by the warm presence of an affectionate pet or cheered on by their pet’s antics. Participants felt that their illness brought them closer to their pets and that often these animals were spiritually connected to them in some way.

Expression of the emotional consequences of the disease was another positive effect of having a pet described by participants. They might complain to their pet when they were depressed or in pain, for example. “This offers unique emotional support that provides a stress buffer against the psychological consequences of advanced disease,” the researchers explained.1

Another key point was positive behavioral activation. Participants had to care for their pets, which led them to experience the psychological benefits of feeding their pets or getting out and about. They had to create a structured routine to accomplish daily pet care, leading to a mutually positive relationship. However, despite the positives, participants also had negative feelings. They worried about what would happen to their pets as their cancer progressed, when they got to the point that they could no longer care for their pets. This thought led to feelings of separation anxiety, fear of loss, and awareness of their own mortality.1

Support for pet owners with cancer in the United States

A number of organizations in the United States support pet ownership for cancer patients. One of them, CancerCare, sponsors PAW: Pet Assistance & Wellness Program.3 It helps patients undergoing cancer treatment with the challenges of keeping their cat or dog at home and offers a number of fact sheets for pet owners and healthcare providers. PAW cites the importance of exercise for cancer patients and how having a dog helps patients reach their dog and human exercise goals several times a day.

Walking with a dog is more social than walking alone and can often be a way out of loneliness. Having a pet can lower blood pressure and stress-reactive cortisol. The company of pets also increases oxytocin levels, which is especially important for people going through difficult cancer treatments.3

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) blog, “Taking Care of Your Pets When You Have Cancer”, written in collaboration with cancer specialistsCare, encourages patients to keep their pets during their cancer treatment.4 It provides a number of practical suggestions for patients who find it difficult to physically and economically care for their pet.

The American Cancer Society has an entire section on its website dedicated to cancer patients and their pets. The site covers precautions for living with an animal and cancer, which pets might pose a risk to the patient’s health, and lots of great tips to protect the patient’s health during cancer treatment.5

The medical community is increasingly aware of the importance of companion animals in helping sick patients. But this is not entirely new. Years ago, even Florence Nightingale encouraged patients to keep pets. She writes: “A small pet is often an excellent companion for the sick, especially for long chronic cases. A caged pet bird is sometimes the only pleasure of an invalid confined for years in the same room. If he can feed and clean the animal himself, he should always be encouraged to do so.6


1. McGhee WRG, Dempster M, Graham-Wisener L. The role of companion animals in advanced cancer: an interpretative phenomenological analysis. Palliat BMC treatments. 2022;21(1):160. doi:10.1186/s1904-022-01051-y

2. US household pet ownership statistics. In: Pet Ownership Statistics 2022 — 70 Fun Facts About Fur: Let’s Take an International Journey Through the World of Pet Ownership! Lemonade website. Accessed October 17, 2022.

3. CancerCare Pet Assistance and Wellness Program (PAW). CancerCare website. Accessed October 17, 2022.

4. Puzo V. Caring for your pets when you have cancer. website. Posted December 10, 2019. Accessed October 17, 2022.

5. Caring for animals during cancer treatment. American Cancer Society website. Last revised: February 1, 2020. Accessed October 17, 2022. html

6. Rossignol F. Notes on nursing and other writings. New York, NY: Dover Publications Inc; 1969.

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